Saturday, February 27, 2016

Fantasy, Super-heroics, and Science Fiction

Dark Corners of Calidar

I do enjoy the potential of Calidar, and I think I shall try to begin converting many of my old Mystara posts to Calidar.

There will be some adjustments to those old posts (and I'll probably link back to them), but the full backstory of Calidar can certainly be tweaked to fit better.

The swashbuckling feel of Calidar's fiction, for me, needs to be roughened up a bit. Perhaps darkened and expanded more than a little bit. I do enjoy the promise of the second Kickstarter, and hope to see it when it comes out.

In the meantime, I'll begin perusing the old posts for consolidation and rewriting.

West Coast Champions

As the Kickstarter for Aaron Allston's Strike Force draws to a close at the time of this writing, I suppose I must embrace the gravity of my nostalgia and my mental synergy with many of the principles of the Hero System, and my love for the super-heroic genre.

Just not sure what posts I'll be posting here. Right now, I'm leaning towards a setting -- West Coast Champions -- that builds upon a trio of cities I was quite fond of: San Angelo (from Gold Rush Games), Bay City (under the Fuzion imprint), and Night City (yes, it's from Cyberpunk 2020, but it's such a fit for the Dark Champions genre).

Right now, I think that it's a matter of figuring out what it will be, because I'm currently focused on the series Things I Learned From Champions.

It's an exploration of the system, really. And a realization that it's a deep well, some of which is very geeky and tightly focused in terms of fandom, and not as general as I've been posted in the past.

Confederation Chronicles

A return to the twice-interrupted attempt at a complete-ish SF setting temporarily labeled Confederation Chronicles. It was originally meant to be implemented in the Stars Without Number system, and I am now equally tempted by the D6 system and by the OSR-based White Star in concert with the original Stars Without Number system.

Star Wars and Star Trek and Andromeda and a bit of Battlestar Galactica -- and all of the treasured source materials I've collected for the genre over the years.

A Welcome Diversion

But I'll be honest, it's all meant to de-stress and distract from the stress of many things going on in life right now.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Podcast Reactions: Play On Target -- Trust

Once again, a set of reactions to the Play On Target podcast. This time, the discussion centred around the issue of trust in RPGs. I highly recommend listening in on this one, as the issue is responsible for many a dissolved campaign (and even gaming groups).

Interpersonal Trust

To my mind, many of these 'violations of trust' seem to center around a case of a difference in expectations -- between the GM and the Players, or between the Players themselves.

They can be as mild as a difference in expectations for a horror game -- perhaps where the GM meant psychological horror, while the Players understood it to be supernatural horror.

On the other hand, it could be an outright violation of general etiquette, which we need not tackle as the differences of social maturity in groups (especially in the stereotypical demographic of gamers) are not really my area of interest right now.

What does intrigue me for this topic are cultural differences that we end up blindsided by, because gaming is a very different pastime from sports, joining a book club, or getting drunk at the local watering hole. While we may pretend to be different people at these events, or show only a particular side of ourselves at these gatherings, you're still generally being judged as 'yourself'. In RPG sessions, there's a "player character" that you can hide behind, or be confused by, especially if -- as mentioned prior -- the stereotypical demographic isn't that well-versed in social skills or introspection.

Admittedly, gamer culture is young, and varies from play group to play group, sp there's no commonly referred to body of knowledge for newbies to refer to. Solutions to many problems appear to be common sense, but rely on anticipating (through experience or a certain level of human empathy and cultural sensitivity) that specific problems are likely to surface. 

And to complicate matters --

Game System & Trust

That's right, sometimes the game purposely works to make the PCs betray each other, and thus (potentially) have the players feel betrayed as well. In real life.

If I recall correctly, Phoenix Command really messed with trust in the GM and the game itself. If I recall correctly, the players's book sets up a particular kind of game (rah-rah we're the best nation in the world), and the GMs book tells a different (post-apocalyptic rebuilding) game campaign.

Paranoia was a game that gave every character a secret society and a mutant power (both grounds for treason), and the secret societies often gave conflicting sub-missions to the current mission that the Troubleshooters were assigned to.

Cold City had a mechanic (much like to an optional rule in Night's Black Agents) that encouraged PCs to build up trust between the characters, so that when betrayal took place it would give a bonus to a particular action.

In these cases, these are by design -- with varying degrees of success per gaming group I'm sure. (After all, not everyone takes to the resultant lying and backstabbing in boardgames like Diplomacy).

However, +Lowell Francis points out that some games themselves violate trust, suggesting certain kinds of things about the gameplay and setting, but aren't supported by the rules.

I know how he feels, and it's part of the reason I totally support bell curve systems like the Hero System vs. any linear systems (unless they're coupled with something like the point-spend mechanic in Gumshoe). They make your PCs feel competent, instead of lucky amateurs.

Fading Suns' Victory Points had that problem, if you looked at the ratings of stat and skill levels. So did the classic WOD system (5 pips makes you one of the best in the world? Sure didn't feel like it), and one of my favourite systems for other reasons -- Interlock.

Summaries and Future Reactions

In short, the topic touches on many surprising aspects of the gaming experience. Once again, the Play On Target crew have unearthed a key topic that can be mined in more detail in future posts.

Which I hope to do some day soon.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Weekend Roundup: Deities of Erol Otus and other Makers

It started when +Chris Kutalik, Lord of the Hill Cantons, posted about some apparent deities and demons that the esteemed Erol of the Otuses had created in a little AD&D tome you might know called Deities & Demigods.

And he proceeded to name them. Not content with this act of co-creation, he then set his sights on another image from the same tome, the cover page illustration, and named them as well.

Spurred into action, +trey causey set about naming this latter pantheon himself, and came up with the following:

It has spurred me to not only follow anyone else who has begun their own pantheons based on this artwork, but also to look at the pantheons of Calidar that +Bruce Heard is currently working on as part of his recently funded Kickstarter for an expansion of the Calidar canon.

Thoughts about gods are in the air, it seems.


It seems that +Mark Craddock is working on a related project. His ongoing work on the Clerics of the Otus Pantheon can be found at his blog.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Things I Learned from Champions: The Multiverse Is My (Potential) Sandbox (part 01)

Champions and the Hero System have been on my mind of late for several reasons: the Aaron Allston Strike Force Kickstarter, the DC RPG Hero Points Podcast under the Fire & Water podcast network. So when a recent talk of sandboxes and railroads slammed into the space for RPG thought, my immediate thought was: in a Supers RPG, The Multiverse Is My (Potential) Sandbox.

All my worlds, torn asunder!

What do you mean by sandbox?

You may know what a sandbox is, but my understanding may be different from yours -- so I'll expound on my particular interpretation. As I mentioned in a very old post, my understanding of a sandbox is

"...a style of play where players are dumped into a campaign setting that can be as small as a dungeon or as large as a  world map and are free to pursue whatever agendas they wish..."

Furthermore, my understanding is that sandboxes are often positioned as a diametric opposite to the railroad, wherein a gaming session / adventure must follow a rigid sequence of events, with little tolerance for deviation.

One key point about sandboxes is the implication of edges. In theory, you can do whatever you want within the borders of that sandbox, but beyond the borders -- there's nothing prepared.

But in the Superhero genre, there's a precedent for borderless adventures. Sure, Daredevil may be dealing with crime in Hell's Kitchen -- but from time to time Japanese Ninjas come 'round and kidnap him or his loved ones forcing a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun (and Sailor Moon). And occasionally, there's a team adventure in the Savage Land or some other strange corner of the universe. It's worse for characters who can travel to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, or can sift through millions of minds in a split second, or can slide-shift into other dimensions.

In fact, that was one of the earliest things I got into when building my character -- years of frustration at not being able to move far enough or often enough in other RPGs led to a high DEX, high SPEED, high movement character build. Someone who could move across the battle mat in a single move (nothing compared to the more experienced characters who could, actually, race across the city in a single segment.

So, at power levels like this, there's no borders to where they can go during adventures, right?

No borders, no sandbox -- right?

The Invisible Borders of a Supers Sandbox

There actually are some borders in a Supers Sandbox. Some of these I've used, and others are those I've learned from my betters in Metahuman settings:

Beware: Here Be Boredom

For all the criticism of super-heroes being reactive, only waiting for crime to take place before doing anything about it, super-hero campaign players are rarely anything but reactive. Give them a mystery and they'll do anything -- even ill-considered, or downright stupid things -- to get to the bottom of it. Hit them with an attack that almost kills them, and they'll buy up a defense for it -- even if it doesn't fit their character concept.

The downside is, for those players who haven't learned yet that part of the super-hero genre involves their characters getting into progressively worse situations before getting out of them, they can start to turtle.

Ain't nothing wrong with being a turtle. As long as you're
teenaged, mutated, and ninja'd!
Rather than strike hard and fade away into the night (only old fans of TMNT know that one), they very unheroically pull into their shells and hide. They avoid encounters with the enemy, avoid following up leads on villains, avoid interactions with their NPCs or innocents in need.

This is why the view that Call of Cthulhu PCs are unheroic is flawed: there's a lack of appreciation about what true heroism is. Being powerful can mean having the fury of a millions suns coursing through your veins, but being heroic lies in using (or not using) that power even if it means that you might die.

So, the reward for repeated cowardice in my games -- beyond shame or ridicule -- is just boredom. Nothing happens to you. No one bothers you. The digits of your wall clock cycle through the seconds and minutes slowly. You overhear people talking about their work, their love lives, their cats, their trip to Japan where they watched a Go tournament. All while their teammates have the time of their lives, risking their lives and sacred fortunes to fight for what is right and true and just in the world.

No, they're not being forced to go back to the "storyline of the GM". They're just discovering that, just like in the 'real world', there are places where nothing interesting is happening right this second / minute / year / century. They have exercised their player agency to place their characters in a state of stasis.

In D&D terms, this is the equivalent of the PCs that refuse to go into any dungeon, or pursue any adventure hook or rumour that the DM dangles before them. They just get to sit in the tavern and ignore the growing table of increasingly drunk mysterious strangers in cloaks grumbling loudly about adventurers these days.

The Gravity of the Situation

Star Trek reference. My job is done here.
On the other hand, before we pull the trigger on that solution, Supers GMs often employ another technique to pull their players' PCs back into the thick of things. Perhaps they have a beloved NPC get kidnapped by the villain (a classic), or a helpless innocent is endangered, or a person / place / thing / ideal very dear to the player or the PC is threatened.

Or, out of sheer coincidence, that dame/dude picks the player's life to walk into, out of all the gin-joints in Gotham City.

These events, very much in the pulp-rooted traditions of two-fisted action and wall-to-wall suspense, will often bring the heroes -- who might be traipsing around in the backwaters of Earth-C -- back to where the action is.

The benefit of this kind of approach is that PCs are exercising a very traditional player agency ability -- the ability to get yourself into the trouble you choose! Yeah, you may not want to go into space to fight the Zekrit Warz, but you're sure down with knocking sense into fools who're trying to grab that bespectacled kid with the lisp and the adorable little chihuahua!

If you're enjoying these movie references, check out the
Film and Water podcast. It's a hoot!
One might say that these are just adventure hooks (as they would be called in the classic D&D milieus), but in a Supers campaign they do act as a sort of border -- much in the way that an event horizon acts as the edge of a black hole. No matter how far the players try to flee, these often pull them back in.

Well, most of the time. The real trick is having some kind of variety to your approaches. Sometimes it's a carrot (you'll get some information on a villain, some useful connection, some artefact of power that will help you in this adventure or in the campaign at large, a new NPC, etc.) and sometimes it's a stick (death, injury, social or financial consequences, ridicule or anger from the general populace, or other heroes hunting you down -- for a crime you didn't commit).

The Weirdness Magnet

This boardgame appeared in the pages of the comic. Fun!
I first encountered this in the Blue Devil comics, where it's posited that when the titular character -- a stuntman by trade -- gets fused into his costume by a blast of eldritch energy, he's been turned into a weirdness magnet. That is, unlike when he was a normal stuntman, he now 'coincidentally' runs into super-villain schemes, supernatural plots to destroy/transform the world, meets new and super-powered humans and aliens, and generally lives a life of constant excitement and bewilderment.

Yes, you no longer need to find trouble; trouble finds you! Constantly.

In fact, if you have to live a life of peace, you'll have to earn it -- by figuring out what the common thread of all these ninja attacks have (why do all their clan names have an appendage in them?), or by figuring out who's behind all these attacks on their loved ones (why do crooks always rob the store my mom's at?), or by determining why they're only ever safe from being bothered by homicidal maniacs and swarms of locusts when they're near holy ground or a holy symbol (I think someone done cursed you, Johnny. Now get outta my house, I gotta turtle.)!

Audience participation

What are some of the borders that you implemented (or experienced) in your super-heroic campaign? 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

An Occidental Asian Geek: The Hardy Boys

It is hard to overestimate the impact of my Saturday trips to the bookstore with my grandmother. Every single Saturday, her day, she'd take my sister(s) and me to a bookstore to buy at least one book.

One of my early reading genres centered around mysteries, and I suppose that's where the Hardy Boys came in.

The Appeal of the Hardy Boys

Setting aside for now why a Filipino boy would identify with two brothers set in a generic American city, somehow continuously getting into adventures -- let me lay out why I liked 'em.

  • Brothers and friends: early in Grade School, with only three channels to watch (and usually only one good thing to watch on any given night, if lucky), there was a lot of time spent with siblings, cousins, friends and sorta friends doing stuff. This makes it natural to want to go on adventures with them -- especially when you're young and think you're immortal.
  • Semi-autonomy: with their famous detective father, Fenton, usually gone, Frank & Joe often get to do stuff that they can't do when given a direct order by their parent. Aunts and Uncles giving orders were often loopholes because they weren't parents; the important thing is that they could go out and do stuff without technically violating their dad's wishes.
  • Be a detective: as a kid with little true influence or control over their lives and the world at large, there's a bit of wish fulfilment in the areas of righting wrongs, being recognised for it, and cleverly outwitting the adults committing crimes. Also, it was great to be exposed to the (somewhat outdated, somewhat stereotypical, sometimes accurate) work of a detective.
  • Collector Mentality: somehow, the appeal with the episodic nature of the books, and the great appearance of these books on a long shelf, made me very focused on completing my collection (and reading every single one).
  • Cozy Adventure: of course, the concept of a different adventure every novel was fantastic. I loved having that feeling that the boys and their friends were in danger, but -- in the back of my head -- I always knew the rules that the heroes never die, the heroes never lose were enforced and I just wanted to see how they'd get out of their scrapes this time.
Someone Like Me

Okay, here we go on the Filipino angle on this bit of Americana. Arguably, there's no way that one can concievably think that either of the Hardy Boys would look like me. But somehow I identified with it.

Sure, there is a strong influence of the U.S. over our culture: TV shows imported, books brought in, American Top 40 countdowns on our radio. But I felt that a large part of it was that child(ish) desire for independence, for relevance, for autonomy in my life and a sense of adventure.

And yet, the American Dream was very much imported into our country (as it has been into many countries), so there's a bit of that also in certain places. The dream of a stronger middle class, rather than that horrible gap between the rich and the poor; the dream of a better functioning system of law & order; the dream of a world where the guilty will ultimately be found and punished.

So is it possible that I can't really draw that line of division easily because of that long-standing influence.

However, I do recognise that this series of novels really did draw me into the world of Pulp adventure tropes -- and I liked it, and look fondly back on it these days. I'm curious to see if I can catch that old TV Show and see how it holds up.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On the Radar: Joe Dever's Lone Wolf

There is a game available on Steam, Google Play, and the iOS app store that takes the classic Lone Wolf gamebook experience and upgrades it for the digital age! It's called Joe Dever's Lone Wolf, and the free 1st chapter I've tried on my iPad is awesome!

There's that great thrill of 'creating' your own iteration of Lone Wolf -- primary stats, Kai disciplines, weapons, simplified and enhanced on the tablet. It still has that storybook feel -- right up until the moment you encounter combat, or have to use an ability, or have to pick a lock.

So, yeah, you don't select a random number these days. There's some skill involved -- but hey, you can upgrade gear and stuff too. And the combat engine is fun to go through. Your Kai abilities also help you out more in combat now (I like doing the Darth Vader on nearby objects on my opponents using Mind Over Matter), especially one ability which seems better than Healing in combat.

Lockpicking is a pain, though. Getting the hang of it.